Longer days must help, not hinder, family life

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The Independent Online

The Department for Education and Skills can be accused of many things, but undue reticence is not one. Already heavily trailed, its latest thinking on extending school opening hours to accommodate breakfast clubs and after-school activities is to be presented by the Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, today.

The Department for Education and Skills can be accused of many things, but undue reticence is not one. Already heavily trailed, its latest thinking on extending school opening hours to accommodate breakfast clubs and after-school activities is to be presented by the Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, today.

From what we know so far, the extended schools scheme has much to commend it. School buildings and facilities are woefully underused. If they are open for more hours, that is all to the good. It is good, too, that the Government recognises the difficulties many working parents face because of the discrepancy between their own working hours and the school day.

Some schools already provide breakfast for those pupils who are dropped off early, and many already have after-school clubs offering additional sport, music, drama etc, or just a quiet room for homework. The plan to make such facilities standard would assist many families. It would give parents more flexibility and help set their minds at rest about the whereabouts of their children after school. It would also be a boon for those children who would otherwise go home to an empty house or simply drift around the streets.

The lack of anything engaging for youngsters to do is often cited - by them, as well as by social workers and others - as one reason for the increase in antisocial behaviour. The more organised, wide-ranging and systematic such activities can be, the more children will want to participate. Which is one key to the success of any scheme and also a cause for concern. For offering a wide range of organised and worthwhile activities will cost money, not least to pay the instructors and others who will be needed. Teachers, who have only just won additional time for lesson preparation and marking, will hardly volunteer for extra hours of duty without extra pay. The interaction of the public and private sector - which, the Government says, will be involved in the initiative - will also need to be handled carefully. The £680m mentioned by Ms Kelly to set up the scheme may prove far from adequate.

A separate cause for concern is the possible effect on pupils of spending so long in the same milieu. The activities would have to be sufficiently different not to seem like a continuation of the school day. There must also be awareness that for those children unhappy, or bullied, at school, extended hours could become a torment.

In the end, the balance must be for parents to draw. The work-life equation in Britain is already tilted too far against family life by our long working hours. Extended school opening should be a convenience that adds to the quality of life, not another excuse for parents to spend less time with their children.

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